Last November, rights activist Rachel Kachaje was happy when Stellenbosch University resolved to give her an honorary doctorate in recognition of her extraordinary contribution towards promoting interests of persons with disability.
“I felt excited to be recognised by one of the prestigious universities in South Africa. I felt proud when the vice-chancellor himself called me, saying: ‘You have been awarded an honorary degree for being outstanding in disability rights advocacy across the globe.’ I didn’t expect it,” she says
The university honoured Kachaje for outstanding contributions in the field of disability rights advocacy in Africa and beyond. According to the citation, she emerged top of the pack in terms of championing the rights of women with disabilities, who are often left behind in Malawi’s male-dominated society.
“I have helped a lot to enhance their visibility and support their empowerment,” says the founder of Disabled Women in Africa ( Diwa) based in Tanzania.
In 2002, Kachaje formed the organisation to campaign for the rights of women and girls with disabilities in the neighbouring country.
The same year, Diwa extended its tentacles to Malawi to continue its advocacy work.
Kachaje’s fight against injustices and exclusion faced by women and girls with disability spans almost three decades.
The South African university aptly describes her as a “feisty disability advocate from Malawi with over 25 years’ experience in advocating for equal opportunities and rights for persons with disabilities.”
Kachaje, who lost her mobility to polio aged three, has become a fierce fighter when it comes to the rights and well-being of people with disability, Stellenbosch University states.
She was appointed Minister of Disability and Elderly Affairs by Joyce Banda, the country’s first female president.
During her reign, Kachaje helped bring disability issues into the mainstream, thanks to the enactment of the Disability Act which she helped push to the forefront of national conversations.
As a minister, she vehemently pushed for the advocacy for the National Disability Strategy and influenced Parliament to give the Disability Bill a nod.
She recalls: “I made sure it passed into law and was gazetted. I was also drawn to influence policy reviewers for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in all spheres of life.
“In short, I have raised the voice and visibility of women with disabilities. I’m still doing it now.”
Kachaje will receive the doctorate in Cape Town in December this year.
She was supposed to graduate last March, but the ceremony was postponed due the coronavirus outbreak ravaging Western Cape, home of one of the world’s top tourism sites and South Africa’s worst slum.
“I dedicate this award to all people with disabilities. It is their honour and I urge them to celebrate with me, come December,” says the 60-year-old activist.
However, Kachaje is concerned about persistent stigma and discrimination which has a disproportionate impact on the lives of women and girls with disabilities.
From her stints as a foot soldier and policymakers, she is worried that national disability policies remain “remarkably low key” amid delays to turn promises into life-changing action.
She says all the talk about ending the plight of persons with disabilities “is merely a smokescreen propagated by selfish politicians” who are reluctant to make policies work.
“When I look back, I shed tears,” she states. “We have good policies, but there hasn’t been much to show; there is no transformative change from the government.”
Kachaje believes that Malawi, like most African governments, hardly commits itself to transforming livelihoods of people with disabilities and “make their live worthwhile lives”.
“If anything, there’s just talk, talk and more talk. This talk is not sufficient. We need affirmative action from the governments to ensure that no one is left behind. We’re tired of empty rhetoric that doesn’t tick the right boxes,” she says.
Malawi is a party to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which promotes equal treatment and empowerment of persons with disabilities.
How, Kachaje feels women with disabilities are disproportionately excluded from public life and economic empowerment.
Her zeal to fight for the rights of women and girls with disability across Africa keeps burning.
She says: “It is a fight I will never give up until all governments walk the talk on including people with disabilities in their processes.
“It pains me that people with disabilities are still being left out in Covid-19 response as most information, including preventive measures, isn’t accessible for persons with disability. Some people in rural villages don’t have radio receivers to listen to Covid-19 safety measures.”